Freedom’s Eve: Celebrating a Gullah Geechee Tradition
Gullah Geechee people in Charleston and across the Lowcountry come together every year for a celebration that is over 155 years old: the New Year’s Eve “Watch Night” service commemorating the date of January 1, 1863 when Gullah Geechee people in the Lowcountry began to emerge from slavery as a result of the Emancipation Proclamation going into effect.
We want all Americans to remember that there was one day in our history when the dawning of January 1 meant significantly more than just the coming of a new year. In 1863, it also meant the beginning of the end of centuries of bondage and suffering for millions of enslaved. On New Year’s Eve, or Freedom’s Eve as it was historically known here, everyone can attend a Watch Night service in Charleston and join in a recognition of the historic significance of the Emancipation Proclamation to our country’s history and learn more about the Gullah Geechee traditions that have taken root around it.
For those visitors who are unfamiliar with Watch Night, the services generally begin late in the evening on December 31. What happens in the hours leading up to midnight vary by church but, in Gullah Geechee communities, tradition holds that these services usually involve sacred music, the traditional liturgy and contemplation of what has passed. The evening includes public testimonials, reconciliation and resolutions from church members for the coming year. The Watchmen, elders in the community, keep careful time and signal by song when midnight is near. When the new day arrives, the congregation kneels in prayer to welcome the New Year – and collectively reflect on how on January 1, 1863 the New Year also meant a long-hoped for freedom.
Though Watch Night has continued to be observed in one form or another across the country, its historic tie to the commemoration of the Emancipation Proclamation has been largely lost. The Gullah Geechee community is committed to restoring awareness of this important connection.